On the day that 19-year old Leylah Fernandez added Elian Svitolina to her growing list of US Open scalps, World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka dispatched Barbara Krejcikova to reach her 2nd consecutive Grand Slam semi-final on Tuesday in New York.
Today's match was definitely one of the hardest, not only tennis-wise but also mentally and emotionally. Svitolina is a great player, great fighter. Leylah Fernandez
The Canadian teenager continued her stunning giant-killing run with a 6-3 3-6 7-6(5) victory over the No 5 seed from Ukraine to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final.
Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, had already taken out two former champions in Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, and she added Svitolina to the list to become the youngest semi-finalist at Flushing Meadows since Maria Sharapova.
“I honestly have no idea what I’m feeling right now” Fernandez said on court after the match. “Throughout the whole match, I was so nervous. I was trying to do what my coach told me to do.
“Thanks to the New York crowd, cheering me on, fighting for me and never giving up, I was able to push through today.”
In a rocking Arthur Ashe Stadium, Fernandez won the first set, breaking Svitolina at the 3rd time of asking to take the opener, but the Ukrainian struck back to take the second, breaking twice to take the match into a decider.
This proved to be a topsy-turvy affair, with 3 consecutive breaks at one stage, and Fernandez, having taken a 5-2 lead, found herself serving for the match, but two clutch holds from Svitolina either side of a break levelled proceedings at 5-5.
Back-to-back holds pushed them into a tiebreak in which Fernandez raced into a 4-1 lead, before Svitolina, once again, pulled herself level.
The Ukrainian produced 8 aces and her first serve proved a vital weapon, bailing her out to take the tiebreak score to 5-5.
A brilliant forehand down the line, aided by a small clip of the net, produced a match point for Fernandez, which she converted when Svitolina sent her return long to bring a thrilling encounter to an end.
“Svitolina, she’s a great player, she fought for everything, she runs for everything,” Fernandez said. “I’m honoured to have a fight with her.
“I just told myself to trust my shots, trust that everything’s going to go well. Even if I lose, I’ve got to go for it, and I’m glad I did.”
The young Canadian, who has ferocious ball striking skills, despite her diminutive stature, which she combines with immense athleticism and a competitive spirit, has become a big crowd favourite in New York.
Svitolina did not drop a set through her 4 matches en route to the quarters, and has had an excellent summer, both on and off the court, marrying Gael Monfils in July and then scoring an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo.
Monfils was court-side, sitting with Andrew Bettles, Svitolina’s British coach, cheering when the 5th seed mounted her second-set recovery, cutting out the errors and moving into a 5-1 lead, only to find Fernandez coming back at her with chances to get back on track at 5-4, but the Ukrainian slammed the door shut and levelled the match.
“In the second set, she upped her level and I, unfortunately, made a few mistakes on key moments,” Fernandez said. “I’m glad I was able to recuperate for the third set. The tiebreaker too.”
The Canadian raced to her 5-2 lead in the decider before Svitolina bounced back to force the breaker, calling on her imposing mental fortitude, but Fernandez never trailed in the tiebreak, although it was close throughout.
She had her first match point at 6-5 in the breaker and was able to successfully convert it after Svitolina hit an error off her backhand.
Not much separated the two, with Svitolina winning 72% of her first-serve points, while Fernandez won 70%.
The Canadian struck 10 more winners than the World No 5, 42 to the latter’s 32, but also had 6 more unforced errors, 31 to 25.
As it turned out, Svitolina won 2 more points than Fernandez’s 97 to end the match but it was the Canadian who advanced.
“Today’s match was definitely one of the hardest, not only tennis-wise but also mentally and emotionally,” Fernandez said. “Svitolina is a great player, great fighter.”
Fernandez says she listens to her coach, and her father, Jorge, who is also her coach and briefs her before each match, reminding her to have fun on the court.
Jorge, a former professional soccer player and native of Ecuador, is not in New York, but he was in regular touch with his daughter as she prepared on Tuesday.
“Today is your first quarter-final. Don’t make it your last,” Fernandez said he told her by phone. “Fight for your dream.”
When she sank to her knees on the court, the 19-year old felt the moment was as exhilarating as she had dreamed it would be, when she was growing up in Montreal and adopted 7-time Grand Slam singles champion Justine Henin as her idol.
“I’ve imagined myself playing on every tournament, every Grand Slam, at the biggest stage,” said Fernandez, who just turned 19 on Monday. “When I was younger, since I used Justine Henin as a great example, I would imagine myself playing against her.
“I would also imagine myself playing against Serena and Venus [Williams], and the past few years playing against Osaka in a big tournament.
“When I was younger, I’ve always seen myself being in a big stadium in front of so many people and just having fun on the court.”
Fernandez’ fun continues on Thursday when she will face the hard-hitting Sabalenka of Belarus.
The No 2 seed took out Krejcikova in straight sets to make her 2nd Grand Slam semi-final, having lost in the last 4 at Wimbledon to another Czech, Karolina Pliskova.
Sabalenka recognised her confidence problems at the biggest tournaments earlier in her career, and has been working with a psychologist to overcome these.
Clearly making headway, it took 90 minutes for the Belarusian to dispatch Krejcikova, 6-1 6-4, and then she hit the practice court to fine-tune her serve.
“I think my team wasn’t happy with the level today,” she joked in post-match press, wearing a shirt with the phrase “I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It” emblazoned across the chest.
“No, but for real, I feel like I didn’t move well today and I needed extra balls a little bit to move, a little bit to feel my legs, to feel the court.
“Also, my serve was really, I wouldn’t say, terrible but was really bad today. I was trying to find the rhythm.”
The 23-year-old has looked stronger and more mature since leaving the All England Club, reaching the semi-finals in Montréal and only dropping one set in 5 matches in New York.
She blitzed her way past Danielle Collins and former doubles partner Elise Mertens to book her quarter-final spot, and make her Ashe Stadium debut against Krejcikova, who came into the final 8 under a bit of a cloud after her 4th-round clash with Garbiñe Muguruza.
Both Sabalenka and Krejcikova had won 42 tour-level matches coming into their clash, and with the victory, the Belarusian is now the current match win leader, with 43, while the Czech is tied with World No 1 Barty in second place.
“I just don’t want to take the match from Aryna because she was just playing really well,” Krejcikova explained after the match. “Yeah, I mean, the tank is empty.
“I was just fighting for every single ball. There is not much I can say. Last couple of days and nights, they’ve been really difficult with everything that happened.”
It was a loaded explanation, after her own debut on Ashe was blighted first by a sudden illness that caused her to take a medical timeout late in the second set, then subsequently stalling between points, and later by Muguruza’s handshake recriminations at the net.
“I just didn’t expect that I’m going to be accused like this,” she said. “I just felt, right now, that I got really humiliated by a Grand Slam champion, which I’ve never seen.”
The reigning Roland Garros champion returned on Tuesday night and battled through some close opening games, exchanging breaks with the No 2 seed early in their night-session encounter, but Sabalenka always had an answer, even when her own weapons occasionally failed her.
“I’m just trying to stay smart and professional,” Sabalenka said later with a wry smile, perhaps referencing the ‘unprofessional’ accusation Muguruza had lobbed at Krejcikova.
“Of course, maybe she was a little bit more tired because she had a really tough match against Muguruza,” Sabalenka said. “Something happened there, in the end of the second set, I heard.
“Maybe that’s why I felt, like, she didn’t play her best. Maybe I was just lucky that she had a really tough one against Muguruza.”
Sabalenka shrugs and now turns her attention to surprise semi-finalist Fernandez.
“It’s like nothing to lose for her,” Sabalenka said of the young Canadian. “It’s going to be an interesting match, and I’m looking forward to this one.
“She’s playing well, moving well. I would say it’s nothing to lose for her.”
The Sabalenka power game was on point, often behind her first-service, as she won over three-quarters of points when getting her first delivery into play.
Also overwhelming on return, Sabalenka collected over half of Krejcikova’s service points and converted 4 of her 10 break points in the affair while her 21 winners outpaced the Czech’s 14, and the No.2 seed also had 6 fewer unforced errors.
“Second [major] semi-final, and hopefully I can keep it up,” Sabalenka told to the media, after her win. “That’s amazing.
“I’m really proud of myself, and I’m really proud of my team that they’re always working, they’re always trying to find things where I can improve. This is what I am mostly proud of.”
Meanwhile the t-shirt shouted: ‘I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It’.